By FRANK SYKES
HAVING sown its wild oats, the Overseas Food Corpora- tion has asked for a further six million pounds. and Parliament with some misgivings has promised this sum. But, like any prodigal who finds himself in such a position, the Corporation can give no prorhise that this will be the last demand on the British taxpayer. Indeed, as is so often the case, a large proportion of the money will go to meet debts and commitments of the past, leaving comparatively little for the experiment in economic development which is the new raison d'être of the Corporation.
In the minds of those who are best qualified to judge there can be no doubt of the need for such experiment. Quite apart from the possible alleviation of our own fat-shortage, there is an urgent need to find a method of developing the empty acres of Africa or Africa will starve. Tanganyika itself has to import cereals, and suffers from recurrent threats of food-shortages. Agricultural experiments such as this will take time to show results, and we must persevere. The experiment is on too large a scale—if it runs into more difficulties than can be foreseen it will cost more than is strictly necessary—but that is all a legacy from the past.
There are three areas being farmed. Kongwa, where most of the money has been spent, is a marginal area, owing to the chancy rainfall. Sit there on a verandah in the rainy season and you will see heavy storms sweep across the plain. Next day news will come in that some of the farms were lucky and others were not. If a farm is unlucky too often the crops dry out. Nanchingwea in the southern province receives somewhat too much rain. Here the crops of groundnuts in particular look most promising, but there are long periods when it is impossible to work tractors on the land, and this intensifies problems of tractor- and labour-utilisation which must be acute in any circum- stances in areas with short rainy seasons into which nearly all cultivations must needs be crammed. At Urambo (to the west of Kongwa), where the largest area is under crop, rainfall is adequate, and the soil is light and allows of easier cultivation.• but it does not carry the same fertility.
The most pressing need is to find further economic crops. It looks as if groundnuts can be grown at a profit even at Kongwa in a good season, and it is certain that they will prove remunera- live in the other areas. Tile best-known varieties of maize, on the other hand, compete with groundnuts for power and labour at sowing-time, and yield disappointingly, even when early sown. Sorghum does not compete with groundnuts in the same way. but gives a low cash return. At Urambo tobacco shows great promise. Within a few weeks it will be known if the crop at present growing there cures into first-rate leaf. But tobacco makes big demands on labour, and does not fit well into a rotation. Beef-production at Kongwa shows promise as a source of meat for consumption in the other areas farmed by the Corporation, but the African bullock requires from ten to fifteen acres to support it, and matures slowly by home standards. Hence the success or failure of ranching can have no significant effect on the financial return of the three areas.
The first conception of the groundnuts scheme was to have vast blocks of land in charge of a unit manager, with gangs of tractors in charge of assistants, each of which ploughed, planted and row-cropped the land in sequence. Wisely this type of organisation has been abandoned. Those in charge of farms are now called farmers. This in itself is a significant change for the better. Each is responsible for a more modest and manage- able area. In charge of a number of farmers, and responsible to the general manager, is a practical agriculturist whose duty it is to advise farmers more than to order them, who watches costs and sees that the farms obtain the services they require. All this has resulted in the farmers being keen instead of frus- trated ; jobs are now done on time, the land is clean and well- farmed, and there are thousands of acres of groundnuts which I hope will give a surprisingly high yield.
The complete mechanisation of this crop proved a mirage. Hand-labour comes into the picture throughout the season, and particularly at harvest-time. At Nanchingwea and at Urambo the nuts must needs be harvested in the wet season. They arc pulled by hand behind a lifter, wilted and lifted into stooks to dry out and await a mechanical picker at a later date. This is South African practice. Although there are still doubts as to whether the stooks will keep out the heavy tropical storms which may be expected, I saw some lifting in progress, and I am confident that the crop will be well-harvested this year instead of being left to a large extent in the ground as happened in the past.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the history of the Corporation is that, even when things were going at their worst. those who were actually on the land were prepared to work themselves to the bone, live in great discomfort and suffer every form of frustration, and still kept their high morale. Today their farms are a source of pride to them. Would that some of our own farmers could show the same energy and resource. The executive and civil engineering staff inevitably suffers most in the run-down. The new board, the composition of which has yet to be announced, will take over with fewer difficulties to face than those who guide at present, but a quick run-down will not only save money ; it will dispel that feeling of uncertainty which can destroy so easily good feeling within an enterprise.
In the recent debate the Minister of Food made reference tc tangible assets which remained after £36,000,000 had been spent. Whatever these may prove to be, there are intangible assets which must be of great value to us-and to East Africa in the future, when time has brought the scheme into focus. For the first time in that part of the world a great acreage has been cleared and brought under cultivation with proper regard to soil- conservation. The technique of land-clearing has made great progress. The heavy tractors moving through forests towing an anchor-chain, with a swathe of trees falling like grass before a mower, are an impressive sight. When the time comes to develop further acres—and that time will come sooner or later— the cost of land-clearing will not be prohibitive as it was in the early days. Agricultural research is one of Africa's greatest needs. Lace sums spent have not been wasted. In fact, the danger of re- trenchment is that research may be starved at present, with the result that progress is held, up in the future. Experiment and experience of agricultural mechanisation will not only be of use to the Corporation. The sisal industry in Tanganyika. and even the farmer of Kenya, can and doubtless will benefit from what has been learnt. Africans straight from primitive villages have been taught skills and knowledge which many thought beyond them.
The lesson of past failures of the scheme, already well learnt by private enterprise, must be equally well learnt by the State. Africa has a rough way of dealing with pioneers. Farms are not factories where skills and techniques can be taught and transferred from one continent to another. Pilot schemes to test men, machinery and agricultural techniques are essential to the economic development of new areas. Perhaps the great service that the public can perform for the Corporation and those who work for it is to forget it for a while. Peace and oblivion will allow these men to solve quietly the great problems which still face them. Certainly another upheaval could destroy what is left, and that might retard colonial develop- ment in East Africa for many years. In the meantime there is a tiny gap in the Miambo forest which stretches from the Limpopo to the borders of Kenya—a gap which may breach the defences of this vast area against a tide of cultivation which could bring great benefit to European and African alike.